Hasina Begum, a woman farmer, in Bangladesh. Image: Oxfam
Hasina Begum, a woman farmer, in Bangladesh. Image: Oxfam

Day 9: Nutrition Policies that Work for Women

29 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

Almost everywhere and across all age-groups, female nutrition indicators are worse than those of their male counterparts. Gender differences in access to food obviously reflect socio-cultural reali-ties, but are often reinforced by public policies that are either gender-blind or downright discrimina-tory.

By Jayati Ghosh, feminist, economist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University

Almost everywhere and across all age-groups, female nutrition indicators are worse than those of their male counterparts. In the developing world this is much more evident, particularly in much of South Asia and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where malnutrition (especially under nutrition) has grown worse in the recent past.

 "Across much of the world, women are now the main producers of food."

Sadly, this has ceased to surprise us, so used have we become to gender inequities in different spheres. But surprise us it should, because across much of the world, women are now the main producers of food: as members of farming households, engaged in recognized or unrecognized work, in cultivation and as agricultural labourers. Despite this, structural features of food cultivation and distribution – aggravated by the shift to more corporate activity – continue to generate gender imbalances that may have become more severe.

Consider the case of India, which has the worst nutrition indicators among all the larger countries in the world, and certainly the largest number of hungry people. Gender differences in food access obviously reflect socio-cultural realities. In many parts of the country women and girls within households received less food and worse quality food not just because of overt discrimination but also because of self-deprivation in conditions of household scarcity. But these social factors are unfortunately reinforced by public policies that are either gender-blind or downright discriminatory in how they treat women in the food system overall.

To start with, despite the importance of women in food cultivation, women are scarcely recognized as farmers. Because they rarely have land titles in their own names, they are denied access to institutional credit, to public agricultural extension services and inputs, and even to marketing channels. This increases their costs substantially and obliges many of them to stick to increasingly insecure subsistence farming. Policies directed towards farmers have to move away from identification based on land titles, towards recognizing all those who are involved in cultivation.

In any case farmers – including women cultivators – are being squeezed by the rising cost of inputs, reduction of subsidies that add to costs, and reduced public investment in rural areas, even as they are being asked to compete with subsidized imports. The same forces affect the demand for agricultural labour, an area where women are also heavily involved. Further, the livelihood crisis of the farming community has disproportionate adverse effects on women and girls, given the existing gender inequalities in society. Policies towards agriculture should be specifically oriented towards small holders, and cover the entire range of issues including irrigation and access to water; agricultural research and extension; access to affordable institutional credit; access to relevant and sustainable inputs; and access to stable markets for selling the output. In each of these, special care has to be taken to reach women farmers, who tend to be excluded from benefits because of economic and cultural constraints.

"Policies directed towards farmers have to
recognize all those who are involved in cultivation."

The recent increase in food prices, which reflects broader global forces as well as India’s own failure in proper food management, has had a massive effect on access to food for the majority of Indian households, and a disproportionate effect on females within households. One obvious way to address this would be to expand, enlarge and increase the efficiency and transparency of the public distribution system for food that provides grain and other basic food items at subsidised prices. There is already strong evidence that some states that have done this – such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and recently Chhattisgarh – have been able to offset at least some of the adverse impact of rising food prices and ensure better nutrition for women.

But India’s national policy has been quite the opposite, seeking to limit and reduce the spread and coverage of the public distribution system in the name of reducing food subsidies. There is even talk of replacing the direct provision of food with cash transfers directly to households in order to reduce public costs and “leakage”. This strategy is correctly opposed by most poor women, who realize that cash can be spent in all sorts of ways, not necessarily on food, and that internal power equations within families means that women’s and girls’ nutrition is likely to suffer as a consequence. Instead, the distribution network has to be made more efficient and accountable, via a combination of technology and social mobilization to ensure better delivery.

"Gender imbalances in nutrition can be alleviated
or addressed by public policy."

Some public programmes have the potential to deal with at least some gender imbalances, but they need to be implemented in different ways. For example, the school meals programme has been a success not just in raising school attendance but in providing some nutrition to school-going children – but it is underfunded. And now there are attempts to substitute healthy cooked meals in schools with fortified “biscuits” that will increase corporate profits rather than provide employment to local women.

Another very large programme for mothers and infant children – the Integrated Child Development Scheme – seeks to provide some nutrition and related health services to pregnant and lactating mothers and infants up to the age of three years. But like so many Indian government schemes of the past decade, it seeks to provide such services on the cheap, relying on the underpaid labour of women who do not even get the minimum wage in return for performing a huge number and variety of tasks.

The moral of this Indian story is that gender imbalances in nutrition, even though they are driven by systemic inequities in the gender construction of society, can be alleviated or addressed by public policy. But for that, public policy itself must be made more gender sensitive, rather than relying on and accentuating existing forms of gender discrimination. A gender sensitive system would offer:

  • more recognition of women farmers and more facilities for women farmers, along with policies to make smallholder farming profitable, including access to institutional credit (rather than simply microcredit), access to technology and inputs, and access to more stable markets;
  • more efficient and accountable public distribution systems and other measures that make affordable food accessible to all, including women and girls, which in turn requires different forms of state intervention in essential food markets; 
  • more spending and increases in coverage and quality of public services in nutrition, health and sanitation that provide well paid and decent work for women as well as men, and that avoid trying to base public service delivery on the underpaid labour of women; and
  • controls on corporate power in food systems to maintain and increase the earnings of farmers and to prevent consumption patterns from being altered in unhealthy ways.

Over the past two decades, agriculture (and particularly small holder agriculture) has been hugely neglected in public policy discourse the world over. And food distribution has been handed over to market forces that are reinforcing and accentuating discrimination and malnutrition. The women’s movement should urgently take up this agenda – not only to improve the lot of women but to build more equitable, viable and sustainable economies and societies in general.

Download: Nutrition Policies that Work for Women


Interesting debates

Sophia Murphy’s essay on the virtues of discrimination generated an interesting debate yesterday.

Many of you were pleased to have the discussion turn to macroeconomic policy and global trade issues, and agreed with Sophia that our current international trade regime has exacerbated inequality and marginalized women living in poverty. As Alexandra Spieldoch put it, “we cannot continue to simply dribble money at women at the village level – structural change is required to fix the system”. Several commentators called on the development sector to focus more seriously on macroeconomic policy because of the profound impact it has on food systems and economic justice.

At the same time, many of you pointed out that social movements have largely dropped the ball on trade, and that momentum to stand up against unjust trade agreements that put pressure on jobs, labor rights, women’s livelihoods and natural resources seems to have been lost. You suggested that civil society needs to regroup and reenergize to take on this struggle.

Some commentators appreciated Sophia’s focus on affirmative action and offered other suggestions for how to ensure trade and foreign investment provide meaningful opportunities – such as gender audits for examples. Other argued that the premise of her argument was flawed. Commentator Patricia Amat called on us to return to a more radical feminist critique of trade, stating that affirmative action cannot fix a fundamentally flawed system and that our valiant efforts to push for incremental changes have unfortunately got us nowhere. She suggested that our best hope is to learn from and support alternative economic models that women are pioneering at the grassroots.

What all commentators did appreciate was Sophia’s holistic approach. You agreed with her assessment that economic development is meaningless for women if it doesn’t go hand in hand with improved access to essential services such as health and education. As Gina said, it is what happens outside of agriculture that will actually make a difference in the lives of women food producers.

Today’s discussion features two essays, so please don't forget to check out what Pamela Caro has to say on feminism and food sovereignty.

In her essay, Jayati Ghosh zeros in on nutrition, and argues that while women’s poor nutritional status may be caused by socio-cultural realities, it is often reinforced by public policies that are either gender-blind or downright discriminatory.

Do you agree that public policies can counter the impact of deeply rooted discriminatory practices and attitudes towards women and girls? In your opinion, what would gender-sensitive nutrition policies look like? And can you share examples of what works and what doesn’t based on your experience?

Food and Gender

I have read through the last two weeks’ contributions with interest, and have found many new insights into the issue of women, land and food, as well as ideas for where our efforts can be improved to ensure that women and girl-children not only survive by getting sufficient nutrition, but are able to craft lives of joy.

I am however still confused as to what the key issues are in ensuring gender justice and food sovereignty for women and girl-children – whether a farmworker in the Western Cape South Africa or a young girl scratching in bins in Canberra Australia? Is it because women have too little access to and control over land (including water) use, or because women are generally at the lower end of global value chains and need to climb the ladder and become more competitive as food producers, or because their knowledge is not sufficiently acknowledged, or simply because we (all) have bought into the neo-liberal ways of viewing food production and consumption?

What is important for me is not so much land (including rivers, lakes and seas) ownership, or access, but human relationships with / to land. Human beings tend to see land as a commodity and / or resource to be used for human benefit – whether for food production, building houses, or burying our dead. Even our approaches to biodiversity and ecological justice are underpinned by how human society will be able to ‘benefit’ from it. Yes, the survival of our species is important to us as humans, but it is not necessarily essential for biodiversity or the survival of other species which inhabit this planet. Human beings would not be able to survive without plants and other animals, but they can survive quite well without us. And herein lies the necessity for ‘changing value systems’ – human beings need to re-evaluate our relationship to land.

While working with women in rural, peri-urban and urban settings over a period of more than two decades, the one thing that has stayed with me is the concept that women see land as more than a mere economic entity or a resource for physical survival. Land is not merely about the basic requirements of food, shelter and clothing, but is intricately tied up in a sense of belonging. Land is about history, heritage and legacy. It is about cohesion and continuity. It has both material and spiritual significance. It tells of the pain of conquest and the subsequent miseries inasmuch as it tells of the moments of joy and victory over oppression and exploitation. Land is sustenance, yes, but Land is also memory – both good and bad.

My grandmother taught me about the significance of ‘belonging’ in relation to land – the Hawequa did not belong to me, but I belonged to Her, and in belonging to Her, I belonged to all those who belonged to Her, as much as I belonged to them. The history and memory connected to the Hawequa are mine because that is what my grandmother bequeathed me, and what I will bequeath my children, whether I do so consciously or unconsciously.  Along with that will be issues of social structure (including food production and sharing, gender relations and community cohesion, respect for the interconnectedness of all life, etc.), knowledge creation and dissemination (indigenous ways of care for the earth; food preparation and preservation, etc.)

When land is more than about food production, but rather about a community’s continued existence, it becomes more important to ‘look after’ that land. When it is about a place of belonging – home, and generally a happy home; then the issues of food security and sovereignty, equality and equity, biodiversity and ecological care become part of the ‘value chain’ that is passed down from generation to generation.

I really liked Nidhi Tandon’s comment that we need to change our value systems and that this "reversal of values can only take place at a human level; money cannot be thrown at it. It is inter-generational work that places a central value on enviro-cultural relationships between humans and the lands that they inhabit, a movement that reinstates values from one village to the next, from one community to the next”.

I really enjoyed reading this blog. It's a great initiave, and I hope that there are similar ones in the future.

Another point of view

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Women take an holistic approach, that needs holisic support

I fully agree with the critique made of some responses and the recommendations. I would just like to take it further as I believe government policies and support (and programmes from NGOs) need to respond holistically to support the multi-faceted lives of women.

A brief summary from the current life of a young women I was interviewing a few weeks ago, in Dar es Salaam, I believe illustrates what I want to say. Irene has an 18month old baby, the father has gone and takes no responsibility, Irene lost her job when the employer shut down, she was evicted from her room (the man she paid rent to turned out not to own the house) and in the process with all belongings thrown in the street lost all cooking equipment, she is now temporarily in another room with no security and now way to cook for herself having to eat out or at friends, she daily spends money on public transport to drop her baby at a friend’s house so that the baby is fed along with that women's children. Many days Irene goes hungry as she does not want to impose herself on the friend when she cannot contribute any food or money (that might jeopardize the means of the baby getting one good meal a day). Even when hungry herself Irene keeps the equivalent of 10Euro aside in case of any medical emergency so she can get the baby to a doctor and buy medicine.

Irene goes hungry while keeping money for health care and ensuring her child is fed. The father of the child appears to suffer no such deprivation, at least not linked to caring for this child. The father would also as a man probably have been in a better position to negotiate (threaten) the corrupt person who took the rent money and the house owner who threw tenants belongings into the street.

Irene has to make provisions for health care, and buy clean water for the baby effectively privatizing these service through the inadequacy of such basic state services. As her baby gets older I have no doubt Irene will make similar sacrifices to get the child in school.

So (sorry to be long), in addition to the improved direct agriculture and nutrition interventions mentioned in the article, we need to ensure health and education services, and we need to ensure tenure security and rights and quite a bit more - increase women's rights and power - if we are to address the situation of the chronic under nutrition of women in poverty.

Behaviour change

Women should change their behavior with regards to taking food.Many south east Asian women still believe that they should have meals after their husbands ;so they wait for long hours until the men come.this is strange.

and the men?

I agree, but what about the men?  Don't they also contribute to that behaviour? You make it sound like it is the woman's fault yet we know this kind of thing is often entrenched in culture that men uphold as it is good for them. I have also known women who are beaten because they do not prepare the food for the husband, or not how he wanted it, or do not wait for the husband, or eat before the husband.

Another point of view

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Macro Policy on Gender ... ??

Dear colleagues

Thank you again for this insightfull discussion ... I would like to highlight some macro issues critical on gender .... But before that I also would like to point out what interested me from Vanessa's discussion .... ''.... Land is not merely about the basic requirements of food, shelter and clothing, but is intricately tied up in a sense of belonging. Land is about history, heritage and legacy. It is about cohesion and continuity. It has both material and spiritual significance. It tells of the pain of conquest and the subsequent miseries inasmuch as it tells of the moments of joy and victory over oppression and exploitation....''.  Indeed this last part is very critical ... In Eastern African countries which I know very well, land (particularly 'fertile land' is possed by powerful groups... So those who are not from this powerful groups can not own land, and do effective (profitable) farming... That means they have to look for alternative means of livelihoods other than farming -- e.g handicrafts, blacksmithing, pottery, weaving, tannery, etc, etc. Such actitivities (regardless of their profitability!!) are not easily taken up even by the poor, because of the negative connotation attached (that it indicates that they are from the loosing, defeated, group!!). ... Only the less powerful, and the very poor would take them up ....

On the Macro Issues:- Governments need to do away with discriminatory laws and regulations (like access to resources like land, etc) ... But more affirmative actions is also needed not just to enhance women’s access to resources, like micro-credit (by attracting service providers into rural or difficult areas through investing on infrastructure, communication, etc) but also enhancing ‘credit worthiness’ of women, and making them acceptable to financial service providers through investing on other developments interventions supportive of women enterprises, including business development services (BDS), skill training, marketing, legal services, etc. .... Multiplier effects are huge, since, among others, successful women can be role models to rest of poor women in localities, encouraging them to follow suit, as well as influencing traditional attitudes and perceptions (esp. with-in the household) toward the girl child who are often discriminated against (compared to the boy child) by households, including by mothers, because they are assumed to have little prospect in life and support parents at old age..... Promoting (gender-aware) women into leadership positions at various development sectors (still dominated by old-boys club) can greatly facilitate efforts to promote women empowerment and gender equality.

Thank you again and again




Women must take care about the health and more over we should follow particular diet which makes us fit and healthy.Comapritevely women should take more care about the health rather than the male!

Another point of view

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